An urn full of ashes washed down the sink. A sister drowned in a river. A snowstorm swirling outside. In Rajiv Joseph's "The Lake Effect," water is the unifying element: a source both of connection and isolation, life and death.
The play's title comes from a meteorological phenomenon: Cold, dry air passing over a warmer body of water can freeze the steam and deposit it as snow on the downwind banks. It's a metaphor for the emotional conditions Joseph's characters face when a loss draws out the fear and anger lurking just beneath the surface.
Adult siblings Vijay (Adam Poss) and Priya (Nilanjana Bose) meet at their father's Indian restaurant in Cleveland, where they've come to check in on him -- and assess his finances -- while he lies ill ("it's his heart") in an upstairs apartment. Though the restaurant is closed, they're surprised by regular patron Bernard (Jason Bowen), an African-American man about their age who makes himself at home and begins to reveal that he knows their father better than they do.
As the snow falls steadily past the restaurant's plate-glass windows in scenic designer Wilson Chin's elaborate and convincing set, the three characters inside struggle to understand their relationships to each other and to the man who ties them inextricably together, whether they like it or not. Vijay is estranged from his father; Priya is enmeshed with him. Bernard -- who despite his work as a bookie seems at first to be the wisest of the three -- is in fact woefully misled. All three talk more than they listen, their brewing conflicts at once comical and tragic. Meanwhile, floating in the air between them are yet more unspoken words: assumptions based on race, gender and occupation; the struggle of the immigrant's child to find belonging in the new world; the question of what it means to be family. It's only in the face of immediate grief that all this latent energy rises from the depths, unleashing an emotional tempest.
Crucial to "The Lake Effect" is the characters' physical confinement; forced to pick between a literal blizzard and a billowing confrontation, they often choose to stay. In the end, Bernard, Priya and Vijay each find themselves with little option but to weather the storm.
Joseph's light touch with tense, often funny, fast-paced dialogue isn't easy to deliver on stage, and at times, both Poss and Bose come off as impossibly cavalier in the face of such a shattering loss. Poss' Vijay is so quick to anger that his sniggering retorts and cursing explosions start to feel forced, while Bose's Priya deflects discomfort with such relentlessly sassy chatter that when she's finally pierced, it's hard to feel the depth of her pain. There are so many allusions to back stories (the car accident that set this family on its careening trajectory, Priya's potentially violent husband, Vijay's job loss and subsequent depression, their father's gambling habit and the deeply unsettling origins of his friendship with Bernard, to name but a few) that at moments the script threatens to spin out of control. Yet the writing is sharp and witty, and under the direction of Joseph's longtime collaborator Giovanna Sardelli (who also staged the premiere of 2011's "The North Pool" at TheatreWorks), this production holds its center.
Whether or not audience members can relate directly to the second-generation immigrant's experience of being caught between cultures, Vijay and Priya are universally recognizable characters. He's the ambitious first child, rejecting his father's Old World ways and placing his faith in Wall Street. She's the baby: a free spirit who's been wounded by the harsh realities of adult life and has turned back to her father for comfort and support. Her struggling Florida business is as unsubtle a metaphor as they come: marine salvage.
Of the three characters in this play, it's Bernard who most fascinates and who requires the most careful consideration. Bowen plays him as unflappably genial, with just a flash or two of rage. At moments, Bernard comes dangerously close to playing the wise fool, the street-smart simpleton delivering platitudes about the importance of love and acceptance, and wringing his hands at the thought of inflicting pain ("I never did anything to hurt anyone," he cries in a monologue to his dead mother, "Or maybe I did, and I just can't remember.").
Yet there are hints that Bernard might not be quite what he seems. The surrogate son of Vijay's father, born the same year as Vijay and having lost his mother at the same age, Bernard acts as a sort of doppelgänger, taking the literal blow that for Vijay was virtual, reflecting in his social status the same quality of being cast out that haunts Vijay, despite his apparent successes.
For those expecting absolute realism, "The Lake Effect" may disappoint. Yet it's precisely in the most surreal and least credible moments -- the revelation about Bernard's attacker, Vijay's final act of defiance against his father -- that the play's themes resonate most powerfully: Wounded and betrayed by love, we're nevertheless bound to return to its source and to mourn its death.
What: TheatreWorks presents "The Lake Effect" by Rajiv Joseph
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through March 29. Wednesday 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 21, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 22, 2 and 7 p.m.; Saturday, March 28, 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 29, 2 p.m. Post-show discussion on Wednesday, March 25, after evening performance.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.